A festive event was held in Israel’s southern city of Sderot on May 16. The opening of the refurbished Ben Gurion Youth Club was celebrated with 250 city dignitaries, community and municipality workers, soldiers who serve as youth club volunteers, and parents with their children.
Representatives from Meir Panim, the charity organization established to help alleviate and diminish the harmful effects of poverty in Israel, were present as well. The organization sponsored the youth club’s impressive facelift, with the initiative spearheaded by American Friends of Meir Panim‘s longtime President, David Roth.
“Not only are we so excited to see how beautiful the renovations are, we are also encouraged by the high caliber of people involved with the youth center,” shared Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim. “It is a winning team which no doubt will influence the youth of Sderot to be future stars in Israel’s leadership.”
From 2000-2015, Sderot was plagued with constant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Rather than take on a defeatist attitude, residents of the beleaguered city chose to feel empowered.
Dr. Ayala Hajaj, region supervisor for the Ministry of Education for Informal Education in the Negev, also joined the crowd to give an emotional statement: “I love this place. I love to come here. I am rejoicing for this city which has come such a long way. Sderot has moved from a posture of being a victim from all of the rockets that it has experienced to taking strong initiatives to build its future. Today, we are seeing the success of lots of hard work.”
Continued Sternbuch, “it is clear that the city is completely invested and involved with this building and creating a better future for the youth of Sderot. We look forward to a continued fruitful collaboration with city leadership.”
While speaking at the event, Mayor Davidi noted that Sderot’s residents are Zionistic, patriotic souls. “It is a very close-knit community with unique mental strength,” he said. “Sderot residents love their city and are proud to live here. They do not break in the face of terrorist threats. This fortitude sets an example for all Israeli citizens.”
Several speakers, including the mayor, praised Meir Panim for quietly dedicating large amounts of time and resources towards the completion of this project. “Meir Panim is proud to have helped make this important project move from dream to reality,” said Dr. Shlomit Shulov Barkan, head of Meir Panim’s advisory board. “It is one aspect of the work we do in southern Israel to make a brighter future for Israel’s struggling communities. This youth club fits right in with our efforts to provide nutritious food, productive summers and nurturing places for youth to thrive.”
Sderot’s Deputy Mayor Mark Ifraimov beamed with excitement at the event. Originally from Caucasus, a primitive area in southern Russia, in his youth, he was a manager in this exact TikvaHope Youth Center. “I worked here when I was a student preparing kids for the army and helped to develop youth leadership,” he explained. “We were on our own in those years. Few were interested in ensuring a bright future for Sderot’s youth. Seeing our hard work become this youth center is very emotional and will have a great impact on Sderot’s and Israel’s future successes.”
Ifraimov pointed out that many of Sderot’s present day ministers were part of this club in their teens. Now, it is an example for other youth clubs and cities to emulate. “City ministers and young people alike are motivated to make Sderot a great city,” he continued. “We live here with our families and will grow old here. We want it to be the best we can be and this center is part of that goal.”
The renovated youth center is also used as a community center, with activities for young and old alike. During the week, the center is open after school until late in the evening, providing a safe and enjoyable haven for children to receive help with homework, healthy food, environmental education, positive social interactions, music lessons and more. Saturday nights, after the Sabbath, entertainment is provided in Russian for 50-60 women who come to hear music, lectures, and watch performances.
An eighth-grade youth club member was asked to say a few words. Impressively poised and mature, he shared, “I am proud to come to Ben Gurion Youth Club. It is like my home away from home. I receive a lot of love, support, help with my homework, and make wonderful friends here.”
“Now the real work begins,” reflected Daniel Berkeley, manager of the Sderot Youth Department. “Today’s teens are interested in whatever is on a screen. This place will provide quality informal education, provide meaningful guidance and keep kids active in a fun, safe and interesting environment.”
Many participants at the event said that they pray that every neighborhood in Sderot will merit such a quality place for neighborhood children. When clubs are easily accessible to youth, attendance rises and the positive influence spreads.
As visitors to the event enjoyed food stands, jumping castles, and face paint, Sternbuch said, “This is Meir Panim’s flagship center. We love supporting this place which empowers the people of Sderot. The children are so bright eyed, respectful and filled with hope for having a great future to look forward to.”
The event ended with the crowd releasing 500 red Meir Panim balloons into the sky. “May the young men and women of Sderot soar as high as these balloons,” smiled Sternbuch.